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with those agencies which have affected all civilized
peoples the condition in which these found the people
of Ireland. That condition has been already de-
scribed. The country was immensely over-populated.
The overgrown population was plunged in the deepest
misery. It had just been visited by a tremendous
calamity ; and the system of industry, under which
alone the maintenance of its numbers was possible,


had run its course, and was collapsing from ex-
haustion. Free trade was heralding a new industrial
career, but one incompatible with the actual numbers
of the Irish people. All things thus concurred to
the same result, and Irish emigration became the
portentous spectacle we have seen it.

Such has been the character of this extraordinary
movement, and such, to the best of my judgment, is
its explanation. It is the composite result of perfectly
distinct trains of events of decades of good, follow-
ing upon centuries of bad, government of the sudden
disruption of mediaeval barbarism by the grandest
forces of modern civilization. But where is the
movement to end ? and what is its significance as
regards the interests of the country from which it
proceeds ?


In his admirable " Plea for Peasant Proprietors,"
Mr. Thornton observes that " Ireland is one of the
few countries in which there neither are, nor ever
were, peasant properties." The remark well deserves
consideration, and, followed up, will be found to
throw light on some characteristic features of Irish
industrial life.

It would seem that, in the progress of nations
from barbarism to civilization, there is a point at
which the bulk of the people pass naturally into the


peasant-proprietor condition. In the work just re-
ferred to, this transition has been traced in the in-
dustrial history of the Jews, Romans, and Greeks
amongst ancient nations, and, amongst moderns, in
that of the leading nations of Western Europe; and
it has been shown with abundant and interesting
illustration that the regime of peasant properties has
been constantly coincident with great physical comfort
amongst the masses of the people. As Mr. Thornton
observes, it was after peasant proprietorship had
existed for five hundred years in Judea, that David
declared he had "never seen the righteous forsaken,
nor his seed begging bread ; " while, on the other
hand, it was not till under the later kings when
men had begun " to lay field to field till there was
no place, that they might be placed alone in the
midst of the earth " that pauperism became a con-
stant and increasing evil among the Jews. The
notion of every man " dwelling under his own vine
and fig-tree" was the traditional Jewish ideal of
national happiness. In Roman history, to borrow
another example from Mr. Thornton, though debt
and poverty were never rare amongst the plebeians,
pauperism as a normal phenomenon, paupers as a
distinct class, did not make their appearance till
towards the seventh century of the city, when the
small peasant estates of the Roman Commons had
been consolidated into the enormous grazing farms
cultivated by slaves, which were the characteristic
feature of the later Roman agriculture. From being
the scene of a thriving rustic population, each man
the owner of his own farm of some ten or twelve


acres, Italy became a country of immense estates of
absentee proprietors worked by slave-gangs ; while
the population which had in the early time sustained
itself by industry, crowded into the cities, and chiefly
to Rome, where they became the formidable rabble
whom it was found necessary to support by regular
largesses of corn. The connection between pauperism
and consolidation did not escape the patriots of the
time. It is a noteworthy fact that the practice of
largesses was introduced by the same men who were
also the agitators for the distribution of the public
lands. To give one example more, English history
illustrates the same tendency to peasant proprietor-
ship at a certain stage of a nation's growth, and
not less decisively the social value of that economy.
The period when it had attained its greatest deve-
lopment in England seems to have been about the
end of the fifteenth century, by which time the con-
dition of villenage had very generally passed into
that of copyhold tenure, while that tendency to a
consolidation of estates and holdings which marked
the epoch of Elizabeth had not yet commenced.
To what extent the system then actually prevailed,
there is not perhaps any distinct evidence to show ;
but two centuries later, when considerable progress
had been made in the consolidation of farms, the
authorities on whom Lord Macaulay relies speak
of not less than 160,000 proprietors as existing
in England, forming with their families not less
than a seventh of the whole population, who derived
their subsistence from little freehold estates. " These
petty proprietors," says the historian, " an eminently


manly and true-hearted race, cultivated their own
fields with their own hands, and enjoyed a modest
competence, without affecting to have scutcheons
and crests, or aspiring to sit on the bench of
justice." *

Of the remarkable prosperity enjoyed by the rural
population of England when peasant proprietorship
formed the prevailing tenure that is to say, in the
latter half of the fifteenth century the evidence
adduced by Mr. Thornton is copious and striking,
and to my mind conclusive ; nor is it the less instruc-
tive when contrasted with the fact that the move-
ment towards consolidation which followed the period
in question was attended with an extraordinary in-
crease of pauperism, resulting, as is well known, in
the passing of the first English Poor Law. These
examples might easily be multiplied ; but enough
has probably been said to illustrate, if not to sub-
stantiate, our position, that in the progress of nations
from barbarism to civilization the condition of
peasant proprietorship naturally arises, and that the
period when it has prevailed has always been con-
spicuous for human well-being. Now, into this phase
of industrial existence the Irish people have never
passed. The fact, as it seems to me, is one in-
timately connected with their present condition and
character; and as such it will, I think, be found to
repay a careful investigation.

In one of the most profound of modern works on
the philosophy of jurisprudence it has been shown
that the primitive condition of property is that of joint

* " History of England," vol. i. pp. 333, 334.


ownership " that property once belonged not to
individuals or even to isolated families, but to larger
societies composed on the patriarchal model ; " and
that private property, as we now know it, has only
attained its actual form by a process of " gradual
disentanglement of the separate rights of individuals
from the blended rights of a community."' This
discovery for, looking to the theories as to the origin
of property hitherto current in the accepted text-
books of jurisprudence, it must, as such, be regarded
if taken in connection with the known historical facts
of the conquest of Ireland, will be found to throw
some light upon the problem with which we are now
concerned. The conquest of Ireland is popularly
referred to the reign of Henry the Second and the
twelfth century : in fact, as was long ago shown in Sir
John Davis's well-known essay, t with the exception
of the small portion of the island known as " the
Pale," and some towns along the eastern and southern
coasts, Ireland was not conquered till the reign of
Queen Elizabeth, nor effectually brought under English
dominion till that of her successor. " The Irish chief-
tains," says Sir John Davis, "governed the people by
Brehon law : they made their own magistrates and
officers; they pardoned and punished malefactors
within their several counties ; they made war and
peace upon one another without controlment ; and this
they did not only in the reign of Henry the Second,
but afterwards in all times even unto the reign of

* Maine's "Ancient Law," chap. viii.

f " Discovery of the True Causes why Ireland was never entirely


Queen Elizabeth." Now the condition of landed
property in Ireland at the time when the conquest
was consummated affords, it seems to me, an instruc-
tive illustration of what may be called the juridical
principle brought to light by Mr. Maine, exhibiting
property, as it does, in the intermediary condition,
when the process of disentanglement had been begun,
but before it was yet completed.

The following is the account given of it by the
writer from whom I have just quoted, himself a
member of the Commission to which was entrusted
the task of accepting the surrender of Irish estates,
and re-granting them according to the course of
English common law :

"By the Irish custom of Tanistry the chieftains of every
country, and the chief of every sept, had no longer estate than
for life in their chiefries, the inheritance whereof did rest in
no man. And these chiefries, though they had some portion of
land allotted them, did consist chiefly in cuttings and cosheries,
and other Irish exactions, whereby they did spoil and impo-
verish the people at their pleasure. And when their chieftains
were dead, their sons or next heirs did not succeed them, but
their Tanistres, who were elective, and purchased their elections
by strong hand ; and by the Irish custom of gavelkind the
inferior tenancies were partable amongst all the males of the
sept, both bastards and legitimate : and after partition made,
if any one of the sept had died, his portion was not divided
among his sons, but the chief of the sept made a new parti-

* " Discovery of the True Causes why Ireland was never entirely
Subdued." The Parliament of Kilkenny condemned the Brehon law, but
this only applied to its use by the " degenerate English." " The Statute,"
says Hallam, "like all others passed in Ireland, so far from pretending
to bind the Irish, regarded them not only as out of the king's allegiance,
bat as perpetually hostile to his government They were generally
denominated the Irish enemy."


tion of all the lands belonging to that sept, and gave every
one his part according to his antiquity."

What struck English lawyers, to whom the duty
fell of examining this proprietary system, was, as we
might expect, its loose and indeterminate character.
The "cuttings and cosheries " exactions, of which the
principal consisted in living at free quarters amongst
their tenants,* which constituted the chief property of
the Tanists were wholly undefined, or rather defined
only by custom ; while the practice of redistributing
the lands of the sept on the death of any of its
members, which formed a distinctive feature of Irish
gavelkincl, seemed still more utterly irreconcilable with
English ideas of property. Nevertheless, extraordinary
and apparently impracticable as were these Brehon
tenures, judged by the standard of modern English
notions, they in fact bear a strong analogy to indeed,
I might say, are in character identical with various
modes of possession which have at different times
existed amongst other nations during the corre-
sponding stage of their growth, and of which some
examples are still extant ;f a fact from which we
may infer that they were on the whole not unsuit-
able to the social and industrial requirements of those
who lived under them. Those requirements were the
requirements of a people who had advanced a little
beyond the nomad condition, but had not yet attained
to that of settled and systematic agriculture. Spenser,,
writing in the reign of Elizabeth, has thus described
what he calls " their Scythian or Scottish manners : "-

* " Somewhat analogous," says Hallam, " to the royal prerogative of
purveyance." t Maine's " Ancient Law," chap. viii.


" Of the which there is one use amongst them to keepe
their cattle, and to live themselves, the most part of
the yeare, in boolies, pasturing upon the mountaine,
and waste wilde places ; and removing still to fresh
land as they have depastured the former. The which
appeareth plaine to be the manner of the Scythians,
... to live in heards, as they call them, being the
very same that the Irish boolies are, driving their
cattle continually with them, and feeding only on their
milke and white meats." * This being the mode of
existence generally prevailing in the wilder and more
remote parts of Ireland at this time, and the proprietary
usages consonant to this state of things, or to one
slightly in advance of this, such as they appear in
the Brehon laws, being entirely analogous to what
have been found prevailing in other parts of the world
where society has attained a corresponding stage of
growth, we are justified, I think, in assuming that, had
the Irish people been allowed to follow the course of
their natural development, what has happened in
other countries would have happened in Ireland also.
It is reasonable to think that the progress of popula-
tion and enlarged intercourse with more advanced
nations would there, too, in the absence of disturbing
causes, have produced their natural effects in quicken-
ing the sentiment of property ; that the exactions of
the chiefs would have become more and more strictly
limited ; that the occasions for redistributions would
have been made less and less frequent; that the
common sept property would by degrees have passed
more or less completely into individual possession ; in

* " View of the State of Ireland."


a word, that the Brehon tenures would have ripened
into a peasant proprietorship. But just at this time a
large portion of the soil of Ireland passed into the
hands of English owners ; and within half a centur)
the remainder for the most part followed the same des-
tination. These owners took the place of the native
chiefs, but with proprietary pretensions of a far dif-
ferent kind. The loose prerogatives of the Tanists
were suddenly, by the fiat of an English judge, trans-
muted into the definite ownership of English law ; and,
on the other hand, the claims of the members of the
clan adjudged by the English courts to be no estate,
"but a transitory and scrambling possession " were
absolutely repudiated. The natural development of
property in the soil was in this manner violently
arrested in Ireland, which has accordingly never
known peasant proprietorship. It has, however, in
lieu thereof, furnished the world with a type of
tenure peculiarly its own. " Cottierism " is, we
believe, a specific and almost unique product of Irish
industrial life.

One of the most curious and unfortunate blunders
which have been made about the Irish cottier is that
which confounds him with the peasant proprietor
under the general description of a representative of
the petite cultiire. In fact the two forms of tenure
are, in that which constitutes their most important
attribute the nature of the cultivator's interest in
the soil which he tills diametrically opposed : and
the practical results stand as strongly in contrast
as the conditions. It would be difficult, perhaps, to
conceive two modes of existence more utterly opposed


than the thriftless, squalid, and half-starved life of
the peasant of Munster and Connaught, and that
of the frugal, thriving, and energetic races that have,
over a great portion of continental Europe in
Norway, in Belgium, in Switzerland, in Lombardy
and under the most various external conditions,
turned swamps and deserts into gardens. And it is
scarcely a less gross error to apply to the same status,
after the fashion so common with political reasoners
in this country, conclusions deduced from the relations
of landlord and tenant in England and Scotland.


True, the cottier and the cultivator of Great Britain
are alike tenant-farmers : they both pay rent, which
is, moreover, in each case determined by the competi-
tion of the market. But under what circumstances
does competition take place in the two countries ?
In Great Britain the competitors are independent
capitalists, bidding for land as one among the many
modes of profitable investment which the complex
industrial civilization of the country supplies : in
Ireland they are men we speak, it will be remem-
bered, of the cottier class for the most part on the
verge of absolute pauperism, who see in a few acres
of land their sole escape we cannot now say from
starvation, but at best from emigration and the work-
house. Is it strange that the result should be
different in the two cases ? and that " rent," which
in England and Scotland represents exceptional profit
(the appropriation of which by the landlord merely
equalizes agriculture with other occupations), should
in Ireland be the utmost penny that can be wrung
from the poverty-stricken cultivator ? How, again,.


does the analogy of the tenant-farmer of continental
countries meet the present case ? Between the
"metayer" and the cottier there is the broad dis-
tinction, that, while the rent of the former is a
fixed proportion of the produce, determined by
custom, that of the cottier is whatever competition
may make it the competition, we repeat, of im-
poverished men, bidding under the pressure of
prospective exile or beggary. Lastly, we must
insist on keeping the cottier distinct from another
class also, with whom he has been more pardon-
ably confounded, and with whom indeed he has
many real affinities the serf of Eastern Europe
and of mediaeval times. Judging from their ordi-
nary existence, there is perhaps little to distinguish
the cottier from the serf. Nevertheless they are
not the same. The serf is adscriptus glebes : the
Irish cottier, as he knows by painful experience, is
bound to the soil by no tie save those imposed by
his own necessities. He has unbounded freedom to
relinquish, when he pleases, his farm and home, and
to transfer himself to the other side of the Atlantic,
and he pays for the privilege (of which, no doubt,
he has largely availed himself) in the liability, to
which the serf is a stranger, of being expelled from
his farm and home when it suits the views of his

Such is the Irish cottier, the essential incidents of
whose position are well summed up in the definition
of Mr. Mill " a labourer, who makes his contract for
the land without the intervention of a capitalist
farmer," and " the conditions of whose contract, espe-

P. E. M


cially the rent, are determined not by custom but
by competition." *

I have said that cottierism is a specific product of Irish
industrial life ; and it will not be difficult to show that,
in the position in which Ireland was placed after the
confiscations of the seventeenth century, this was the
mode of existence on which the bulk of the Irish people
were naturally, perhaps inevitably, thrown. It has been
already seen, that the circumstances of the case pre-
cluded the realization, in conformity with the analogy
of industrial progress in other countries, of a peasant-
proprietor regime. It is obvious that those circum-
stances were equally unfavourable to the rise of a
tenant-farmer class on the modern English pattern,
who might, by a steady demand for the services of the
natives, have raised them at all events to the level of
the Dorsetshire agricultural labourer; for disposable
capital is the basis of such a class, and disposable
capital did not exist in Ireland ; nor could it arise in a
country in which the embers of political and religious
hate were still glowing, ready on the slightest provo-
cation to burst into flame. From the advantages of


the " metayer" tenure of the Continent, again, the Irish

* Mr. Jones's definition of a "cottier" is "a peasant tenant extracting
his maintenance from the soil, and paying a money rent to the land-
owner." He adds, " The distinguishing peculiarity of this race of peasant
tenants is that they pay a money rent." (Jones's " Political Economy."
p. 208.) It seems to me that this definition omits the most important
circumstance affecting the cottier's condition, the fact that his rent is
determined by competition a fact on which the same writer in a later
passage very sensibly comments ; while that which he lays down as the
distinguishing peculiarity of the "cottier" is not peculiar to him, nor in
fact essential to the status. The Indian ryot pays his rent, I believe,
mostly in money ; while the " money rents " of the Irish cottier used
to be largely paid in labour.


were excluded by moral, but not less potent causes.
Metairie belongs eminently to that class of institutions
which are not made, but grow. Resting upon custom,
it presupposes common traditions and mutual confi-
dence and regard conditions, which, it is superfluous
to say, were not to be found in Irish industrial society.
There remained serfdom, which was in effect, though
not in name, the state of life into which, in the period
immediately following the great confiscations, the
mass of the Irish j people fell. But, as we have said,
serfdom, though closely allied to, is not precisely,
" cottierism." To realize the latter, it is necessary to
apply to the former the maxims of competition and
contract ; and this was what in the course of the
eighteenth century happened in Ireland. Modes of
action which are only suitable, which are only tole-
rable, in an advanced industrial civilization, where the
actors stand on independent grounds and exercise a
real choice, and where moreover an effective public
opinion exists to control extravagant pretensions,
were suddenly introduced and rigorously applied *

* " Agents, particularly of those noblemen or gentlemen who reside in
England, or at a distance from their estates, who have been empowered
to treat with tenants and give leases, to ingratiate themselves with their
employers (that thus by their skilful management they might procure
more agencies from others), have in some cases taken proposals sealed
up, under promise to divulge none of the names but that of the person
who offered most, whose proposal was to be accepted of. Thus the
lease was given to the highest bidder, so that the present possessor had
no chance for a renewal unless he offered above the value ; for doubtless
among so many proposers there were some who offered at random,
without knowing the value of the land ; and if any tenant had been a
greater improver than his neighbour, or had his houses or lands in better
order, he was sure to be the sufferer. These have been the methods
used by some agents, to the ruin of the nation, by which means they
gave landlords a nominal rent-roll, nnd very often paid part of their

M 2


amongst a people just emerging from the nomad
state. In the lowest deep there was thus found a
lower deep; and Irish serfdom merged in the more
desperate status of the Irish cottier.*

1 have hitherto dwelt chiefly upon one incident the
fundamental one, as it seems to me in the condition
of the Irish cottier the determination of his rent by
competition, he himself having no other resource than
the land. But we may look at him also from another
point of view, as, to borrow the definition of Judge
Longfield, "the cultivator w.ho produces almost wholly
for his own consumption, and pays his rent chiefly in
labour." Thus regarded, we shall have no difficulty
in connecting him with that capital revolution in the
history of Irish agriculture, referred to in a former
passage, which marked the close of the eighteenth cen-
tury, to which, though it did not originate cottierism,
the principal development of the system is undoubt-
edly to be traced. The nature and some of the effects

rents with a mouthful of moonshine, by reason of tenants breaking
and running off in arrear, whilst they themselves, by ways and means,
got estates sometimes equal to those of their employer." An Essay
upon the Trade and Improvement of Ireland. By Arthur Dobbs, Esq.


* As I wish to be impartial, it is proper to add that the cottier con-
dition is not absolutely without something to recommend it. " The
principal advantage which the cottier derives from his form of tenure,"

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Online LibraryJohn Elliott CairnesPolitical essays → online text (page 12 of 27)